Entertaining Dr Johnson

Bringing a friend home to meet your father can be a fairly stressful occasion, one that is made much worse if your relationship with your father is a difficult one and you just know that your friend and your father aren’t going to get on well.  The potential social embarrassment is made infinitely worse if the father in question is a distinguished Scottish judge with traditional attitudes and strong views and the friend is known for his notoriously anti-Scottish views.

James Boswell

This was the explosive situation that James Boswell, advocate and author, got himself into in 1773 when, at the end of his tour of the Highlands with Dr Samuel Johnson, he and Johnson arrived at his father’s Ayrshire home, Auchinleck House, to stay for six days.  James Boswell’s father, Alexander, who had the title of Lord Auchinleck from his position as a judge of the Court of Session, was sixty-six years old. James, who was now thirty-three, had been in more or less constant conflict with his father since his teenage years – a relationship not helped by Alexander re-marrying after the death of James’s much-loved mother.  Alexander thought that James was too fond of loose living and running off to London and should instead concentrate on his family responsibilities as a recently married husband, and as heir to Auchinleck, and on his career at the Scottish bar.

James Boswell had great ambitions which he felt were not capable of being fully realised in Scotland, this despite his very real affection for his family home and his deep pride in his ancestry – the Boswells had owned the Auchinleck estate since the time of the Battle of Flodden.  The bigger world of London was where he was happiest and the literary circle around Samuel Johnson was where he felt he truly belonged.

Johnson was the most eminent literary figure of the age, a poet, critic, biographer and arbiter of literary taste and compiler of the famous dictionary.  His views on Scotland were widely known – partly they stemmed from his belief that London was the centre of the world – he would later write: “A man who is tired of London, is tired of life.”  But there was also a strongly anti-Scottish vein in his thinking, shared by many in England at the time. He had said to James Boswell some years before, that: “the noblest prospect a Scotchman ever sees, is the high road that leads to England.”

It might be thought strange that a lame and rather corpulent London author, a man elderly by the standards of the time – Johnson was sixty-four in 1773 – should embark on a long and arduous journey around the then little known and less understood Western Highlands and Islands of Scotland. However historical and literary curiosity had drawn Johnson to the Highlands – his fascination with the Jacobite story was one important motive for his travels and his meeting with Flora MacDonald proved to be a highlight of the tour.  His interest in the Celtic myths and legends controversially recounted in James Macpherson’s Fingal was another reason for his expedition beyond the Highland line.

If Johnson wished to travel in the Highlands it was natural that he should do so in the company of a young and energetic companion, friend and admirer who was well-connected in Scottish society and able to smooth his path among the Highland gentry.

Boswell had been keen to bring Johnson north for some time and when he had him in Scotland he was naturally anxious to show off this great literary figure to his father; possibly hoping to impress Alexander with the position in London literary society he enjoyed as a friend of the great Doctor Johnson. Sadly, it seems, Alexander had little regard for Dr Johnson; Boswell observed that his father had not had the leisure to read Johnson’s works and had formed an adverse opinion of him based on Johnson’s political views.

Boswell also wanted to display his status as a landed gentleman to Johnson.  James Boswell in London might sometimes appear to be just another Scot on the make, but in Scotland he was a figure of some significance, an advocate and the heir to a flourishing landed estate.

The scene was thus set for a tense social encounter – probably made the more difficult by taking place in a wet November which offered few opportunities for the principal characters to escape from Auchinleck House and each other.

Boswell realised the problems this visit to his family home might entail – while Lord Auchinleck and Dr Johnson might both be father figures to him he was all too aware of their characters and the explosive potential in the situation.  Johnson was a High Church Tory who many thought had once had Jacobite sympathies, while Auchinleck was a Whig, a Presbyterian and a loyal supporter of the Hanoverian monarchy.  Neither man relished contradiction; both were used to being the centre of attention and having their judgments, whether legal or literary, attended to with respect. 

Boswell raised this problem with Johnson on their journey to Auchinleck; asking the Doctor to steer clear of three topics that he thought likely to provoke conflict – religion, politics and Sir John Pringle.  Pringle was a Scottish military physician, currently president of the Royal Society, a friend of the Boswell family who also moved in intellectual circles in London – his liberal political and religious views were probably thought by Boswell to be a potential flashpoint. Doctor Johnson took this counsel in good, if characteristically pompous, part:

I shall certainly not talk on subjects which I am told are disagreeable to a gentleman under whose roof I am; especially, I shall not do so to your father.

The first day of the visit – Tuesday 2nd November 1773, passed off well enough.  Boswell noted: “It rained, and we could not get out” but Johnson was happy enough exploring Alexander Boswell’s excellent library of Greek and Roman classics, an area which formed a safe ground of common interest for the two older men.
The next day Boswell wrote:

It rained all day, and gave Doctor Johnson an impression of that incommodiousness of climate in the west, of which he has taken notice of in his Journey.

Boswell refers to Johnson’s account of their travels: Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland which was published in 1775, ten years before Boswell’s book on the “Highland Jaunt” appeared as: The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson LLD.

The irascible Doctor gave short shrift to some neighbouring gentlemen who called on the Wednesday and were bold enough to ask Johnson if he had liked the Highlands. The wild landscape of the Highlands was not to Johnson’s taste and he snapped: “Who can like the Highlands? – I like the inhabitants very well” – which effectively silenced his questioners.

On the Thursday the rain relented and James Boswell was able to walk Johnson around the grounds of Auchinleck and show off the estate and the ruins of the old castle.  Johnson thought that the new house, built by Alexander, was “very stately and durable” but was more pleased with the “sullen dignity of the old castle.”

Auchinleck House

On Friday Boswell and Johnson were invited to dine at the Manse with the Rev. John Dun, the parish minister and James Boswell’s former tutor.  Bringing Johnson and a Presbyterian minister together was a risky procedure, although the ever-loyal Boswell does note that Johnson could “associate on good terms with them.”  However in this case critical comments were made by Dun at the dinner table about the Church of England and Dr Johnson delivered the magisterial rebuke: “Sir, you know no more of our church than a Hottentot.”

Despite this minor brush at the Manse, things had gone reasonably well at Auchinleck House – but on the Saturday the tensions boiled over. Boswell records a somewhat sanitised version of the dispute:

…the contest began when my father was shewing him his collection of medals; and Oliver Cromwell’s coin unfortunately introduced Charles I and Toryism.  They became exceedingly warm and violent, and I was very much distressed by being present at such an altercation between two men, both of whom I reverenced…

Boswell goes on to say that he felt it inappropriate to give further details of the   doings of these “intellectual gladiators” for the “entertainment of the publick,” fortunately however some details are handed down to us by no less a source than Sir Walter Scott.

Scott records Auchinleck as having previously described his son’s friend as “an auld dominie – he keeped a schule, and caud it an academy” so we may assume that Auchinleck was not over-impressed by Johnson’s intellectual and literary status and had presumably been restraining himself with some difficulty during this difficult visit of the man whom his irresponsible son had spent ten weeks jaunting with round the wild Highlands. 

Auchinleck had a punctilious sense of the duties of hospitality, even to his daft son Jamie’s annoying friend. However when the matter of Oliver Cromwell came up all thoughts of the duties of a host went by the board. 

Scott reports that Johnson asked what good Cromwell had ever done to his country:

Lord Auchinleck at last spoke out, ‘God! Doctor, he gart kings ken that they had a lith in their necks’- he taught kings that they had a joint in their necks.

This flippant reference to the execution of Charles I – what Johnson would have thought of as the martyrdom of Charles I – enraged the Doctor and all the dangerous and forbidden subjects of Whig and Tory, Episcopacy and Presbyterianism emerged and were vigorously, indeed violently, debated until poor James, torn between his two seniors, was able to restore peace and order.  The only saving grace was that the subject of Sir John Pringle did not come up in the quarrel, as Boswell notes, Pringle “happily escaped without a bruise.”

Auchinleck, after this encounter with Johnson, gave him the nickname of Ursa Major – the Great Bear. It was emphatically not the starry constellation that Auchinleck was thinking of when he applied this label but the fierce and aggressive animal!

Sunday came, and the Boswells went to worship at the parish church, unaccompanied by Dr Johnson. On an earlier occasion on their tour the Doctor had observed: “I will not give a sanction, by my presence, to a Presbyterian assembly.”  This decision not worship with the family attracted one of Boswell’s few adverse comments on Johnson. He wrote of the service at Auchinleck Church:

…yet as God is worshipped in spirit and in truth, and as the same doctrines are preached as in the church of England, my friend would certainly have shewn more liberality, had he attended.  I doubt not, however, but he employed his time in private to very good purpose.”

One may imagine that Lord Auchinleck had some difficulty in accepting that his guest felt it inappropriate to join him in public worship in the Established Church of the land – but, doubtless reflecting that the Doctor was departing on the next day, seems to have been able to keep his views to himself.

Even the most unwelcome visitor eventually departs and on Monday 8th November Boswell records that:

Notwithstanding the altercation that had passed, my father, who had the dignified courtesy of an old Baron, was very civil to Dr Johnson, and politely attended him to the post-chaise, which was to convey us to Edinburgh.

Though doubtless a sigh of relief went up from Lord Auchinleck as the carriage rolled out of the grounds!
Dr Johnson’s own account of the visit makes no reference to any of these untoward events. Boswell, writing after the death of both Johnson and his father, and with the endearing frankness that distinguishes all his writings, clearly felt only a few inhibitions about recording the quarrel between the two men. 

Walter Scott’s account reflects the good Scots vocabulary that Auchinleck used- “gart kings ken they had a lith in their neck” – if this was an accurate reflection of Lord Auchinleck’s words, which must have hard for Johnson to follow, then perhaps a paragraph from Dr Johnson’s account which follows immediately after his record of the visit to Ayrshire has some additional significance:

The conversation of the Scots grows every day less unpleasing to the English; their peculiarities wear fast away; their dialect is likely to become in half a century provincial and rustic, even to themselves.  The great, the learned, the ambitious, and the vain, all cultivate the English phrase, and the English pronunciation, and in splendid companies Scotch is not much heard, except now and then from an old Lady.

One of the “ambitious, and the vain” who attempted to modify his native speech in favour of standard English was James Boswell, while one who never had any truck with such attempts was his father.
However perhaps the last word should be with James Boswell. He would go to write perhaps the most famous, and certainly the most influential, biography in the English language, his Life of Johnson. 

A later Scottish writer, Neil Munro, in a short story about the Auchinleck visit, Ursa Major, has James telling his father:

“I see my way to make him into a book.”
 “A book!” cried Auchinleck “Leviathan on a hook! The man’s a giant, Jamie, and you’re but a wee bit dwarf.”
“Just so, papa,” said Boswell, “but a dwarf on the shoulders of a giant can see a good deal further than the giant. Believe me, papa, he’ll make a splendid book!”

(c) Brian D Osborne 

This article originally appeared in The Scots Magazine.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: